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Chenin Blanc – what’s not to love?

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“What’s your favourite wine?” If I’ve been asked this once, I’ve been asked it a thousand times and I’m never sure if they mean what is my most memorable bottle of all time or rather, my most often purchased, best-quality-relative-to-price label. Either way, I always wriggle out of answering by countering “What is your favourite movie?”  Wine, like film, is surely a product of curiosity. Citizen Kane offers a vastly different cinematic experience to Star Wars but I’m glad I’ve seen both.

Compelled to undertake yet another Q&A interview recently, I was relieved to get a slight variation on the “favourite wine” riff: “Any specific wine or variety you’re raving about at the moment?” and I dissolved not to duck the question, at least not this time around. My reply was Chenin Blanc.

Because of its propensity towards stylistic diversity, Chenin Blanc is probably never going to enjoy the same commercial success as Sauvignon Blanc (which is so much easier to understand on account of its typically overt aromatics and generous fruit). By happy accident rather than good planning, however, Chenin is South Africa’s most widely planted variety (17 543ha or 18.5% of the national vineyard) and makes up the majority of old vines – for all intents and purposes it is our national grape.

What’s more, it seems to provide compelling renditions just about wherever it is grown. Stellenbosch and Swartland are well established as districts capable of excellence with this variety but there are great examples from all over the country from Bot River (Beaumont Hope Marguerite) to Montagu (Patatsfontein), from Durbanville (Spier 21 Gables) to Robertson (Arendsig and Mont Blois).

Chenin’s original home may be the Loire but it seems to have adapted exceptionally well to local conditions, so much so that it might be argued that South Africa is now the world epicentre for quality wines from this variety. At the very least, local Chenin now stands up in its own right rather than having to be compared to the Loire or anywhere else in order to assess its merit (Bordeaux and Napa still get referenced when it comes to local Cab, for instance).

The single-vineyard examples of Chenin Blanc from the likes of Alheit Vineyards, David & Nadia as well as Sadie Family Vineyards are justifiably being recognized as among the very best in the world but volumes are limited making them hard to come by. As for price, a London wine buyer will argue that they are still exceptionally cheap in world terms but some of these wines retail for well over R500 a bottle locally and that ain’t negligible for anybody earning rand…

The thing about Chenin, however, is that so many good examples pop up all the time and not all of them are out of reach financially. Earlier this year, Duwweltjie 2017 from Thistle & Weed selling for R185 a bottle rated 96 on this site while the Sur Lie 2017 from Laibach selling for R120 a bottle got the same score. If you want a real bargain, then consider Mulderbosch Steen op Hout 2017 which placed among the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge winners and rated 91 here – it goes for the princely sum of R75 a bottle and I’m pretty damn sure you won’t find more drinking pleasure from any Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc at the same price.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article and all your points raised I entirely agree with. It’s the white varietal that seems to best tolerate our climate, with great examples being produced in almost every SA appellation. I’d be interested to also read an article detailing your thoughts on local Shiraz production, since I feel it’s the red cultivar equivalent of our Chenin, with such a broad range of expressions and high overall quality in general. Both varietals also tend to provide generous QPR.

    • Hi Kevin, I would agree that Shiraz/Syrah and Shiraz-blends are what SA currently does best when it comes to reds even if Cape Bordeaux still demands the biggest premium and Merlot is the punter’s favourite. Will try to write that article in due course!

    • Hi Kevin R, I don’t think Pinotage offers nearly the same depth of quality as Chenin Blanc – there are good examples in both traditional and new-wave styles but lots of it is still pretty ordinary.

  2. The Chenin from the Swartland are amazing. and despite Eben Sadie and David and Nadia, are priced very well. I particularly enjoy Babylon”s Peak, not only for their Chenin but also their reds. Also Annex Kloof for Chenin and reds. At Riebeel Kasteel is the famous wine shop, Die Wyn Kollektief, with wines of the Swartland and the staff are both knowledgeable and helpful.

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